Written by 1:13 pm Wilderness Navigation Masters

9) Matching Your Map to the Landscape

Hello and welcome to this article of the online course Wilderness Navigation Masters, where we will practice matching topographic map to the landscape.

Yes, it’s not easy, but I encourage you to make an effort to learn how to.

And once you practice it, you can start doing it almost effortlessly.

But first, what is that?

If you don’t know what is matching your topographic map to the landscape mean, let me explain it for you.

Matching your topographic map to the landscape is the opposite of what a topographer does. Which is, taking a 3 dimensions world and think how can he turn it into a 2D word.

So your job is, or what you will learn in this video is, to see a 2D work and imagine how can he be in the real world.

Because, once you learn that and you apply it during your hike planning, you will arrive at your trail already having an idea of what surrounds you, and that is one of the first steps to successful wilderness navigation.

So, let’s go.

The close-mountain illusion

The first thing I want you to know is that sometimes if you have two landmarks (like a mountain after another one or two like in this photo), they may be looking like if they are close to each other …. but in reality, it’s not the case.

This is just an illusion, and if you locate the first landmark in your topographic map, and you try to found the second one, do not limit yourself to searching for it just near the first one, search for it in far places on the map.

Photo credit: aspentimes.com

This picture is for the Maroon Lake, where we see two mountains and something like a ridgeline between them. And behind them directly there are other mountain peaks and a ridgeline that connect them.

Now, I want you to imagine the topographic map of this lake, the first two mountains, and the series of mountains in the background.

When we will see the actual topographic map of this place, I’m sure it’s not what you’ve imagined.

This picture is taken from this place, in this direction.

This dashed black line, it’s what represents this trail.

This edge on the topographic map is what represents this place behind this backpacker.

This non-green little zone is represented by this white zone in the topographic map.

Now, that you are familiar with the area, if I question where we will found this series of mountains.

you will tell me it’s directly after the bottom left edge of this photo, which is not the case.

If we zoom-out, the mountains series that we see in the background of the photo are actually far away from the maroon lake, and between them, there is another lake that we don’t see in the photo, named Crater lake.

In this case, if you search for the mountains series directly after the Maroon lake, you may think that the topographic map is not correct or your map is not well oriented, or something else, which can cause you problems when you are outdoor.

So when you try to match your topographic map to the landscape, open your mind a little bit, and if you don’t found what you search for near the first landmark, search for it a little bit away in your topographic map.

Altitudes problem

The second thing I want you to pay attention to, and what caused this illusion, is that altitude can change what you can see.

From a low altitude, a landmark that is higher than your place can block what you can see, so pay attention to the altitudes of each place, to imagine correctly what you can see and what you can’t see from your position.

This higher place here is another reason for what stopped us from seeing the Crater lake in the photo. So pay attention to altitudes, and whenever you are at a lower altitude, there are some places that you can’t see from your position.

Big landmarks, then the smaller ones

Location #1

Another thing that I want you to do, when you are trying to match your topographic map to a landscape is to start with the bigger landmarks then search for the smaller ones.

(photo credit: thrillist.com —-  Emerald Bay, Southern Lake Tahoe | Walkter Bibikow/Getty Images)

In this example of Lake Tahoe, if I ask you to search for this part of the lake in this zoomed out a topographic map, and you start by trying to found this lake part, that looks like a tennis racket handle, you will not succeed.

You may think that it’s this part, which is not true.

Instead, go for this big landmark which is this lake that has this little island in it.

When you do that, you go directly searching for water space with a little landmark in it, which is this place.

When you zoom in, you see that it’s true, because this little island is this. And this tennis racket handles part of the lake is represented by this. 

And this photo is taken from this trail.

Location #2


Another photo that I want you to match it to the topographic map excerpt is this.

Here, the important landmarks to search for in the topographic map is this lake and these two peaks.

If we search for them in this topographic map excerpt, it will not be this, because there aren’t two peaks …. And it will not be this, for the same reason.

It’s this…. because these are the two peaks that we’ve seen in the background of the photo.

So, this photo is taken from this place, which is a trail.

Location #3

Another photo that I want to match the landscape, is this photo of Tenaya lake. Which is this lake, in this topographic map excerpt.

(photo credit: tripadvisor.com)

I want you to tell me if this photo is taken from this campground or one of these picnic areas.

Starting by searching for this green zone in the topographic map excerpt will not help you

because if this photo is taken from this place, we have a green area,

if we think it’s from this place, we have another green area.

So, go for the big or the important landmarks, which are these three mountains.

If we start with this mountain at the left, it may be this mountain in this topographic map excerpt

but after we search for the other two mountains, we don’t found them here, so this mountain is not what is represented here.

But when we search for them after this mountain, we found that this one is this and this one is this. 

And this woodland area is what represented here.

Now, we can say that this photo is taken from this place.


This is how we match our topographic map to the landscape. We go for the big or the important landmarks than the little ones.

Then we pay attention to the altitudes of a different place, to know what we can see and what we can’t.

And if we don’t found a landmark in a place that we think it’s supposed to be on, we open our mind and search for it a little bit far away.


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In the exercise of this article, I want you to search for known places like lakes and mountains and locate them on a digital topographic map or a physical one if you have it. And try to found the position that is the photo is taken from or match your photo to the topographic map.

That’s all for the article, thank you for sticking with me to the end, and see you in the next one.

Updated on June 7, 2021 by Ben

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